From COVID-19 to possible boycott, Beijing 2022 brings a new experience for athletes

·5 min read
Canadian Olympic and Paralympic athletes unveil the kit for Beijing 2022 at a presentation in Toronto on Tuesday. (Sarah Jenkins/CBC Sports - image credit)
Canadian Olympic and Paralympic athletes unveil the kit for Beijing 2022 at a presentation in Toronto on Tuesday. (Sarah Jenkins/CBC Sports - image credit)

Every Olympics is different.

It's a refrain echoed by many, and one Canadian speed skater Gilmore Junio said he was taught early in his career.

It's also truer than ever with Beijing 2022 set to be contested in February amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and murmurs of a boycott.

"When I was first learning about the Olympics, the Olympics were about peace and bringing nations together. … And that's something I've held on to and that's the romanticism of the Olympics," Junio said from the Royal York hotel in Toronto on Tuesday, where Lululemon unveiled its athlete kits for the upcoming Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Calgary's Junio, 31, previously competed at the 2014 and 2018 Olympics, notching a 10th-place finish in the men's 500 metres in the former.

But for Beijing, Junio is focused on the big picture.

"A little more calmness in it. A little more just I want to enjoy it, have a little more gratitude for the career I've had," he said.

"And with being older, I think I take a little bit more responsibility of being a representative of the Asian-Canadian community on the Olympic team and on the speed skating team."

WATCH | Team Canada reveals Beijing 2022 kits created by Lululemon:

Para nordic athlete Mark Arendz is headed to his fourth Paralympics after debuting at Vancouver 2010. The 31-year-old has eight medals to his name, including a gold among six in Pyeongchang.

"This has been a really different quad[rennial], just a little bit more changing on the fly and adapting and I think it's been really good to use some of the previous experience to adapt and apply that to the pandemic," Arendz said.

Instead of lamenting what was lost with the virus, Arendz said he was grateful for the chance to train at home and cut back on travel to be at his healthiest come Beijing.

He also kept an eye on Tokyo 2020.

"It was just still all about the performance process and that was going to come. The atmosphere, if you're on, it's there in the background but it's not that significant for myself as an athlete," Arendz said.

That atmosphere will be amongst the biggest changes from previous Games, as only Chinese spectators are allowed to attend. That means family and friends of Canadian athletes are stuck watching from home.

Canadian Para alpine skier Frederique Turgeon said that doesn't bother her.

"I just ski down a hill, so usually if there's a crowd or not I only see it at the bottom so honestly I'm kind of ready to do my own thing and see how that goes," she said.

Figure skater Nam Nguyen, meanwhile, said the crowd is crucial to his routines.

"I'm glad that we finally have a live audience. As a competitor myself, I always thrive off of the audience's energy," he said, noting the relative normalcy of Skate America, a Grand Prix event at which he placed eighth over the weekend.

Lessons from Tokyo

Canadian Cassie Sharpe, who won freestyle ski halfpipe gold in Pyeongchang, said she spoke to members of Canada's bronze-medal softball team about what might be different in 2022.

"The biggest advice was to lean on each other and when you feel like you're missing your mom, go find somebody that's gonna give you a cuddle and just rely on your teammates," she said.

Athletes said they were confident in all protocols to keep everyone safe.

Both Canada and the U.S. recently announced that their full delegations sent to Beijing must be vaccinated. Winter Olympic power Norway ruled out such a mandate, while Sweden and Finland were likely to follow in their Nordic neighbour's footsteps, per Reuters.

More than 80 per cent of athletes were estimated to have been vaccinated against COVID-19 at the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, including 95 per cent of Canadians.

Carmen Mandato/Getty Images
Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

Wheelchair basketball player and Para nordic skier Cindy Ouellet owns the unique experience of having competed at Tokyo as she pursues Beijing.

"Everything was in place, everyone was washing [their] hands, the temperature, the tests every day, so it felt safe and I hope I'm going to see the same for Beijing," she said.

Those attending Beijing 2022 are incentivized to be fully vaccinated — if they're not, there's a mandatory 21-day quarantine that must be served to be allowed into any Olympic venues.

Everyone within the "closed-loop system" — basically what we've come to know as a bubble — will be monitored regularly and tested daily. Only authorized vehicles can transport the likes of athletes and media between buildings.

Power of sport

Human rights activists, meanwhile, continue to call for a boycott of the Games over accusations against China of multiple human-rights violations, including its treatment of the Muslim minority Uyghur population. Some Canadian politicians have called for a boycott of the Beijing Games over the past year, something to which the country's Olympic officials have pushed back.

But China released a pair of Canadians it had arbitrarily detained for over 1,000 days in September, easing one possible source of tension between the countries.

Sharpe said the best way for her to stand up for humanitarian issues is to just be herself.

"It makes you feel very small because it's just, 'What do you do, how do you help and what can I do to contribute?' And so for me as an athlete going to the Olympics, showing my sport, that's what I do. I go to the Olympics to bring the world together and to have everybody watching and rooting for Canada," she said.

Junio also hoped to use sport to unite.

"Our job is to go win and compete and represent Canada and our values and what it means to be Canadians. So that's at the forefront of my mind is to be that representative," he said.

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